More documents cast doubt on Key claims

By Adam Bennett, Matthew Backhouse, Simon Collins

Prime Minister John Key during his visit to the NZ Customs Air Cargo Inspection Facility at Auckland International Airport today. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Prime Minister John Key during his visit to the NZ Customs Air Cargo Inspection Facility at Auckland International Airport today. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Yet another document has emerged casting doubt on Prime Minister John Key and former SIS Director Warren Tucker's version of events around how secret documents were declassified and fast-tracked to blogger Cameron Slater, who used them to discredit former Labour Leader Phil Goff.

Dr Tucker this morning took the unusual step - particularly given the matter is now under investigation by intelligence watchdog Cheryl Gwyn - of releasing a statement backing Mr Key's version of events that he informed the Prime Minister's office, and not Mr Key personally, about the release of the documents.

Dr Tucker's statement came after the release of a letter to NewstalkZB from him that said he personally briefed the Prime Minister ahead of the release of SIS documents to Slater - a contradiction to assurances Mr Key gave yesterday.


The Official Information Act complaint response to Newstalk ZB Felix Marwick.

Mr Key has sought to keep distance between himself and the release of the documents which investigative author Nicky Hager claims in his book Dirty Politics was part of sustained dirty tricks campaign run in co-operation between Slater and Mr Key's office.

But in another letter to NewstalkZB chief political reporter Felix Marwick, Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem refers to a discussion she had with Dr Tucker in which the SIS director told her "that he is prepared to release a statement regarding his discussion with the Prime Minister".

The letter goes on to say: "Ms Wakem is of the view that there is good reason to withhold Dr Tucker's full recollection of his discussion with the Prime Minister".

Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Ms Gwyn announced yesterday she would investigate the declassification and release of the documents to Slater.

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In 2011, Mr Goff, then the Labour leader, had been involved in a public spat with Mr Key over whether he had been briefed by Dr Tucker about suspected Israeli agents in Christchurch at the time of the earthquakes.

Mr Key said that while his office was told the information was being sent to Slater, he personally wasn't told.

"What does happen is my office gets told if an OIA [Official Information Act response] is going out. More often than not they don't tell me."

But the letter from Dr Tucker appears to show Mr Key was informed of the information's release.

"I notified the Prime Minister ... that I was going to release redacted documents in response to the request from Mr Slater," Dr Tucker wrote.

"I advised the Prime Minister that I had received legal advice that there were no grounds for withholding the information given the public disclosures already made about the existence and some of the content of the briefing .

"I informed the Prime Minister that I had informed Mr Goff of my decision to release the information."

Ms Wakem has backed up the Prime Minister's claim that he was not personally told about the SIS' intention to release a briefing paper to Mr Slater, saying she was clear that Mr Tucker had communication with staff for both Mr Key and then Labour leader Phil Goff over the issue.

Ms Wakem told Newstalk ZB that a letter from 2011 in which she referred to Mr Tucker having "a discussion with the Prime Minister" was unclear and had given the wrong impression.

"I am very clear that the Director of Security communicated with the offices of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition on this matter. In the letter, which was written on behalf of me while I was away, but which had been discussed with me, the word 'discussion' is probably loosely used and may have given rise to an impression that there was a direct approach. There wasn't and hasn't been."

It has also emerged that Mr Key was in Maui on holiday at the time, following his first official visit to the United States in July 2011.

The SIS has said it told the Prime Minister's office that it had received a request for the paper from Slater on July 26, 2011 and advised them again a day later that it was about to release it.

Mr Key's visit to the US ended on July 23, NZ time and his office confirmed this morning he had then taken some days off in Maui and did not return to New Zealand until July 31, after the documents had been released.

Listen: Felix Marwick talks conflicting claims on OIA release

Mr Key this morning stood by his statement yesterday that he was not personally informed the information would be released to Slater.

"The standard process for the NZSIS is to inform the Prime Minister's office of any significant OIAs [Official Information Act requests] which may result in media coverage being released on a 'no surprises' basis," a spokeswoman for Mr Key said.

"They consider this to be informing the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister stands by his statement yesterday that his office knew about the release of the OIA, but he didn't.

"When the NZSIS informed the Prime Minister's office about this particular OIA, no view was offered as to whether the information should be released, or to whom, or when."

Speaking in Dunedin today, Labour leader David Cunliffe said he did not believe Mr Key was not briefed about the release of the documents.

Asked about Dr Tucker's clarification this morning, Mr Cunliffe said he did not think that cleared Mr Key.

"I think it defies belief that the Prime Minister wasn't personally informed."

Mr Cunliffe said the timing, during the 2011 election campaign, made it even more unlikely the Prime Minister would not be told about a matter involving the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr Key's credibility was "in tatters", and he had serious questions to answer, Mr Cunliffe said.

Mr Cunliffe said he had confidence in the investigation announced yesterday by Ms Gwyn.

Mr Goff told APNZ the statements from Mr Key and Dr Tucker this morning were "very convenient".

"Warren Tucker's letter actually indicates that he told the Prime Minister. Are they trying to claim that on this manner - and he he says the tradition is to run it past the Prime Minster - the Prime Minister wasn't aware of that?

"It's frankly incredible. It's unbelievable."

Mr Goff said he had been in government long enough to know how the process worked.

"The Prime Minister would have been advised in the Clark-Labour government - anything that happened in the SIS of that nature, in a disclosure of that nature, would be known to the Prime Minister.

"I can't believe that the rules were any different under John Key. He would have been advised. This was part of a political strategy on his part, he would have been up to his eyebrows in it.

"Frankly it's not believable that he wasn't aware of it. He was aware, he had been informed, and Warren Tucker clearly believed in the OIA request that that had gone to him directly."

Mr Goff said that, knowing how politicised the issue had become, Dr Tucker's response was "odd".

"Traditionally the SIS would not have wanted to become embroiled in a political row. I've been briefed by the SIS over the nine years that I was in government, and nothing like this ever occurred, and you wouldn't dream as a minister receiving information from the SIS to politicise their role or the information that you got.

"This is extraordinary behaviour, and I think it's unfortunate that Dr Tucker allowed himself to be used in the way that he was."

Mr Goff said Hager's book revealed either the SIS or Mr John Key's office had leaked information to Slater. He did not believe it had been the SIS.

Mr Goff said Ms Gwyn's investigation might find a smoking gun.

"It won't have the fingerprints on it. But everybody will know exactly what happened."
Mr Goff said if Mr Key had misused his position as minister in charge of the SIS, then "of course he should resign".

Ms Gwyn said her inquiry would cover whether the SIS had released the documents "for political purposes", whether they had been properly declassified to allow their release, and whether Slater's request was treated more favourably than similar requests from mainstream media.

Intelligence analyst Paul Buchanan told Radio New Zealand it was unlikely Ms Gwyn's investigation would be completed before the election next month.

But if she found that Dr Tucker had acted contrary to statute, there would be repercussions in the future.

" ... there will not be repercussions on Dr Tucker because he's retired, and that gives the government some wriggle room because if it turns out something untoward happened they can pin the entire blame on him without real consequence."

If Dr Tucker "played politics" in granting and fast tracking Slater's OIA request, that would be a "heavy blow" against the integrity of the SIS, Dr Buchanan said.

"If that is in fact the case, then it's up to the current [SIS] director Rebecca Kitteridge...to, if not clean house, at least undertake the reforms to re-establish the SIS as an apolitical intelligence agency."

In order to find something wrong, Ms Gwyn would have to find communications between Slater, Mr Key's office and Dr Tucker, or someone else in the SIS, Dr Buchanan said.

"If she can find a smoking gun that links the blogger to Warren Tucker, outside of the OIA request, then serious questions are going to be asked of this Government."

Ms Gwyn's inquiry comes as the individual claiming to have hacked Slater's computer and obtained the emails on which Hager's book is based released more material.

They show Slater on August 2, 2011, discussing the material with his friend National Party insider Aaron Bhatnagar where he says he has been told he will get the material quickly and that it is "devastating" for Mr Goff.

An SIS spokesman told the Herald the service had not communicated with Slater about the material other than when it sent it to him. However, the SIS had briefed the Prime Minister's office about it on July 27 under the "no surprises" policy.

"Neither the PM nor his office expressed a view as to whether the information should be released, or to whom, or when," the spokesman said.

Dr Tucker said at the time the SIS "would not normally release such information" but "in this case, however, the existence and some of the content of such briefings have already been made public".

Ms Gwyn's inquiry will consider whether:
• The NZSIS acted properly and within the law (including its statutory obligation of political neutrality) when it considered and responded to an Official Information Act request from Slater in July and August 2011;
• The documents released to Slater were properly declassified; and
• Other requests for similar information were treated in a manner consistent with the treatment of Slater's request.

- additional reporting Otago Daily Times

- NZ Herald

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